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The first mistake is to assume that you can find it. This happens to me time and time again, despite my abundance of foreknowledge and experience.
I walk into an English bookshop with the intention of finding a particular title or author. I have been visiting the White City’s handful of English bookshops (or rather, shops with English books in them) for as long as I have been here. Generally speaking, as I am less of a browser than a seeker, I walk into them with a very specific idea of what I want to read. Silly me.
The second mistake I make is to ask about it. Instead of looking at the array of books, usually on one or two shelves in Plato, Vulkan, the now-defunct IPS, Dufry or Hudson’s at the airport, or even the English Book on Kralja Petra (this last having a much wider assortment), I walk up to the counter and ask for the book for which I am questing.
‘I am looking for “Methods of Organic Horticulture,” by Gar Denjia.’
‘Can I order it?’
Some bookshops are much more helpful and will look at their computer before issuing the response. Some will even go to the shelf and look themselves first. But the fact is that I should have known better: if I ask for it, it is not there.
Had I instead gone to the shelves first, I would have found… ok, not what I was looking for, but I would have been transported into the surreal world of random English books as chosen by Belgrade’s booksellers.
Every shop seems to have a huge collection of Paolo Coelho and Orhan Pamuk, as well as a selection of translations of the Japanese author Haruki Murakami (of the three I have only read one book of Coelho), three Agatha Christies, Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations,’ the Penguin Classic version of the Upanishads, and possibly a translation or two from Umberto Eco. If these are not sufficiently random, just keep looking.
Harold Robbins sits next to Harold Pinter. Charles Bukowski (who many of us know only as Mickey Rourke) holds a space next to Louis de Bernieres. Tacticus may be there, as well as Sun Tzu, James Patten, and the ubiquitous English versions of Ivo Andric.
This seemingly random selection seems to say something important to us – even if I have no idea what it could mean. Have these been selected as the seminal works of the English language? Are they the leftovers in wholesalers’ basements? Whatever the reason, it is unwise to approach their perusal with any sense of prior purpose. The English book consumer in Serbia must be more adventurous. I must give up any notion of what I am looking for and concentrate on what I will find.
Unless I give in and read more Coelho.
Christen Bradley Farmer is a co-founder of Farmer & Spaic, Business and Media Consulting, founder and director of MACH IV London Ltd (UK) and has been involved in many writing and publication projects since arriving in Serbia. Farmer regularly shares his observations on life Belgrade in Politika and in his B92 English blog.
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